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Monday, Mar 4, 2024

Post Discusses Free Speech and Inclusion on College Campuses

Yale law professor Robert Post argued that freedom of speech is largely irrelevant in the context of college campuses, and therefore that freedom of speech should not be posed as antithetical to inclusion, in a lecture on Wednesday, April 11 in the Robert A. Jones House conference room.

The lecture was followed by a Q & A session with Erik Bleich, a political science professor.

Post said that colleges must evaluate their educational purpose behind allowing students to invite outside speakers to campus. But he emphasized that enabling students to interact with ideas they disagree with is a central tenet of higher education.

First, Post addressed the fact that freedom of speech and inclusion are often viewed as mutually exclusive aims. The crux of Post’s argument was that freedom of speech does not have to directly oppose inclusion, because First Amendment rights of freedom of speech don’t translate to the classroom.

“It seems either way we go, we have to give up on inclusion or freedom of speech because we pose the issue as a zero sum game. There’s freedom of speech on one side and inclusion on the other and one of them has to give,” Post said. “We can get out of the opposition between inclusion and freedom of speech. We stop thinking of freedom of speech as an abstract right that just exists, but instead think of it as a functional principle that’s designed to to serve a certain purpose.”

Post explained that freedom of speech as defined by the First Amendment and as upheld by the Supreme Court applies to public discourse, or speech that exists in order to further the theory of democratic self-governance. In the sense that public discourse can shape public opinion that elected officials then respond to in order to govern, public discourse must be free and protected in order for that process to be democratic.

“We have First Amendment rights in the first place so that we can govern ourselves via democracy, because we can help form public opinion and we expect the state to be responsive to public opinion, so these rules apply to those forms of speech by which we form public opinion,” Post explained. “So these rules apply only in discreet circumstances.”

According to Post, the university’s purpose is entirely different from the purposes of free speech protections, and as a result, students and faculty at the university are not granted the same protections.

“The university exists as an institution to further education and advance knowledge. And it will regulate speech as is necessary to serve those purposes,” Post said.

Post cited the processes of testing and grading as only a few examples of ways that colleges regulate speech, in that they designate some student speech as superior and some as inferior in the context of academic and disciplinary standards.

“There’s nothing approaching the definition of freedom of speech for students in the classroom,” Post said.

When it comes to outside speakers coming to campuses, Post said that universities must consider what their purpose is in allowing student groups to bring speakers.

“What’s the function of allowing students to pick their outside speakers in the first place?” Post asked. “Is it because we want to create an environment on campus that’s like the general public? Where people have to hear views they don’t like? Or do we want instead to create something else? Any college has to ask itself first of all why its allowing students to do this. And when its answered that question, then it can evaluate the educational impact of any given speaker against that purpose and see whether the net benefit is there or the net detriment is there.”

But in Post’s view, higher education should enable students to deal with people and views they might disagree with.

“Adults in a world where they have to live with other adults, not of their choosing who they don’t like,” Post said. “You don’t get to pick your neighbors. And how do you deal with that tension? That’s part of the task of higher education.”

Bleich urged Post to consider whether his emphasis on educational purpose really solved the problem of reconciling inclusion and free speech.

“Have you gotten us out of the box by kicking this over to education? You started by essentially saying this isn’t a First Amendment issue, therefore its not an issue of rights, therefore we don’t have to make trade-offs between freedom of speech and inclusivity,” Bleich said. “So you’ve taken this debate and kicked it into the realm of education, but I see the same problems here.”

“What I mean to do is refine the way that we frame the problem,” Post said. “If we have two incompatible virtues, we don’t know what to do. On the other hand, if we say we allow students to invite speakers because it serves an educational purpose, its an invitation to analyze what that purpose is, how well its served and how well that speaker does and doesn’t serve that purpose. Once you put the conversation on commensurate grounds, it invites the community to come together to define what that educational commitment is. There’s no other way around this except to do that and to think hard about how we live together.”

Bleich was doubtful that a conclusive conversation regarding this educational purpose was feasible.

“Your assumption is that we can all meet here and that everyone at every institution can get together talk it out, through the right procedures, process and find some common vision of how we should meld these two values, but in reality I wonder if that’s possible,” Bleich said.

Post responded by emphasizing that ultimately, a pursuit of education as he understood it required engaging with potentially offensive ideas.  

“If what you want to achieve is not being offended, we can’t do the job,” Post said. “So what do you want to receive in an education, that’s what needs to be clarified. And if in the end they just want an environment in which they’re never offended, that is to say never have to engage an idea not disrespect but engage with an idea they find distasteful, then maybe they’re not in the right place because that’s what an education does and if not that, then what is it, what is the education?”